posted 5 Mar 2010 in Volume 13 Issue 5
Christian Young explains how to be a knowledge management revolutionary
If there’s one thing you can say about knowledge management (KM) professionals, it’s that we’re a flexible lot. We wear many hats as we endeavour to facilitate change – often in uncooperative and, perhaps even, adversarial environments. Being successful necessitates pushing the limits of our flexibility and, true to the multi-disciplinary nature of our field, drawing inspiration from unlikely sources.
During my first KM ‘tour of duty’, when I was a wet behind the ears, ambitious, but ever-frustrated knowledge analyst in search of ways to promote KM, I conceived a strategy that I affectionately called ‘guerrilla KM’. The objective: to increase knowledge sharing by any means necessary. Yeah, I was feelin’ all ‘knowledge analyst X’ at the time.
Reflecting my adult education and policy analysis studies, my initial approach focused on building an army of ‘KM champions’ across the organisation. However, as I continued to study guerrilla warfare and the teachings of Mao Tse-tung in his treatise On Guerrilla Warfare, my strategy evolved to evoke more traditional guerilla tactics – minus the less savoury elements, mind you. I prefer to rely on positive, lasting tools as a means of facilitating positive, lasting change, which takes tactics like ambush, deception, sabotage, and espionage entirely off the table. Yes, even if Sun Tzu says it okay. Of course, that’s just me – feel free to be as janky [tricksy, dubious] as you please.
Through the lens of KM, guerrilla warfare offers an appealing, out of the box approach to rendering organisational change:
Guerrilla warfare – a small contingent attempts to undermine a larger military force, usually in pursuit of a political agenda;
Guerrilla KM – a small contingent (maybe even a party of one) attempts to ‘influence’ the larger organisation, usually in pursuit of a politically or culturally charged objective.
Organisational change is inherently political and the more KM (or any functional area) attempts to influence (or create change in) behaviours, strategies, and policies, the more likely it is to arouse the ire of any number of people. This makes the use of guerrilla tactics an intelligent and savvy (if unconventional) methodology to explore.
For those of you intrepid enough to add a guerrilleros’ sombrero to your, no doubt, already extensive collection of hats in order to go underground from time to time, I offer the following eight principles of guerrilla KM.
Being revolutionary isn’t just about fighting passionately; it’s also about acting thoughtfully and with deliberation. Whether you’re planning a long-term offensive or a strategic ‘hit’, having the right intel is vital:
What are the organisation’s strategic goals (alignment is key to credibility)?
Where do critical human, technological, and economic resources lie?
Who are potential allies… and enemies?
Where do areas of opportunity exist (particularly those long ignored)?
After achieving some awareness and understanding of organisational current and future states, developing a comprehensive strategy is the next step. No matter how well supported and/or funded your KM efforts are, there must be a roadmap detailing and prioritising the desired goals and the methodology for realising them. Otherwise, it’s like playing darts in the dark, wearing a blindfold – you might hit something but it’s a whole lot easier to hit the mark when you can see the target.
Three: Relationship building (networking)
Revolutionary icon Che Guevara, wrote, “[T]he guerrilla fighter is a social reformer…he takes up arms responding to the angry protest of the people against their oppressors, and fights in order to change the social system that keeps all his unarmed brothers in ignominy and misery.”
That might be slightly north (south, east, and west) of dramatic for our purposes, but the essence rings true: the work of a knowledge manager is not meant to be vainglorious, it’s meant to benefit the organisation. For that to happen, we must make common cause with others to build – and maintain – relationships that matter.
Four: Mobility and adaptability
Having access to unlimited resources is every project manager’s dream, yet it is rarely the reality. Working with fewer resources stimulates creative, out-of-the-box thinking and affords a measure of mobility, both of which guerrilleros regard as advantages to be capitalised upon. For example, working with a smaller staff means fewer chances for miscommunication; a smaller budget provides less visibility and makes accomplishments all the more impressive; and, poor or non-existent executive buy-in (with the proper spin) can help to legitimise KM efforts with change-weary staff.
Five: Tactical initiative
Typical guerilla campaigns exploit the use of brief, offensive strikes that make the best use of a small, organised force with limited resources. They study their obstacle/situation earnestly, plan well (anticipating and mitigating potential problems), choose the time and place, and take advantage of the element of surprise. The demonstration of high, moderate, or weak tactical initiative is a reflection of how much control you’re able to maintain during a campaign. The better your plan (strategy), the greater your control and, thus, your success.
The factor of time is only an obstacle if you perceive it as one! Mao Tse-tung wrote, “Guerrilla strategy must be based primarily on alertness, mobility, and attack. It must be adjusted to the enemy situation, the terrain, the existing lines of communication, the relative strengths, the weather and the situation of the people.”
Since successful strategies are organic and not static, as guerrilleros we mitigate the time factor by remaining diligently alert and using gathered intel to adjust the strategy so as to remain one step ahead at all times.
In his treatise, Mao Tse-tung also provides some characteristics of the type of leadership necessary for guerrilla warfare: “… unyielding in their policies - resolute, loyal, sincere, and robust; well-educated in revolutionary technique, self confident, able to establish severe discipline, and able to cope with counter-propaganda.”
While all of these qualities are perfect in military leaders, we’re not exactly running a communist régime so ‘establishing severe discipline’ (share or die) might be a tad excessive. It is true, though, that leadership should be models for the people, leading by example and, equally important, with discretion. As guerrilleros we practice discretion not to conceal any illicit activity (I hope), but to avoid ‘tipping our hands’, so to speak. To quote Change and Innovation Agency founder, Ken Miller, “If nobody notices what you’ve done, you’ve missed the point of guerrilla warfare. And if everybody notices what you are doing before you’re done, you have also missed the point.”
One of the most well known – much maligned, though often utilised – guerilla tactics is propaganda. Given its unsavory connotations, however, I prefer the terms ‘promotions’ or ‘branding’, which don’t have to be fed on lies and half-truths, or fuel dissent to be effective. KM branding (a favourite term of mine) combines the use of marketing tactics and adult education techniques to generate buzz around KM activity and build social capital. It should be de rigueur for every KM strategy.
Ultimately, the desired net effect of a guerrilla approach is to position the KM function or initiative to deliver what Chairman Mao called ‘the lightning blow’ – “… the tactic of seeming to come from the east and attacking from the west; avoid the solid, attack the hollow; attack; withdraw; deliver a lightning blow, seek a lightning decision.”
And, when you get right down to it, isn’t this why most organisations invest in KM in the first place? To develop the capability to deliver such blows, at will, in their respective markets?
Christian Young is an independent KM strategy consultant and occasional blogger based in